Introduction

The Intel NUC category has been an interesting product line to analyze, as it provides us with insights into where the traditional casual / home use desktop market might end up. Officially falling under Ultra-Compact Form Factor PCs (UCFF), units in this category take miniaturization to the extreme by even making 2.5" drives unnecessary. Last year, we reviewed Intel's first NUC. Fast forward to the present, and we have the Haswell-based NUC already in the market. How does Haswell improve upon the original NUC? Before going into that, a little bit of history is in order.

The ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) for PCs was originally championed by VIA Technologies with their nano-ITX (12cm x 12cm) and pico-ITX (10cm x 7.2cm) boards. Zotac was one of the first to design a custom UCFF motherboard (sized between nano-ITX and pico-ITX) for the ZBOX nano XS AD11 based on AMD Brazos. The motherboard was approximately 10cm x 10cm. Intel made this motherboard size a 'standard' with the introduction of the Intel NUC boards in May 2012. The first generation Intel NUCs were both launched with Core i3 17W TDP CPUs. While one model had a GbE port, the other traded it for a Thunderbolt port.

The Haswell NUCs come in two varieties too, but Intel has opted for a more conventional configuration this time around (particularly due to the slow uptake in Thunderbolt adoption in the target market). The following table provides a quick look at the specification of the two Haswell NUCs, with our review configuration highlighted. The WYB suffix refers to the board alone, while the WYK suffix refers to the kit with the chassis. The WYKH increases the dimensions of the chassis to support a 2.5" HDD / SSD in addition to the mSATA drive.

Intel's Haswell NUC Kits Comparison
  D34010WYK D54250WYK
CPU Intel Core i3-4010U Intel Core i5-4250U
Chipset Integrated PCH Integrated PCH
RAM 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots 2 x DDR3 SO-DIMM slots
Display Outputs 1x mini-HDMI 1.4a, 1x mini-DP 1.2 1x mini-HDMI 1.4a, 1x mini-DP 1.2
USB 4 x USB 3.0 4 x USB 3.0
Gigabit Ethernet Y Y
mini PCIe (half-height) 1 1
mini PCIe (full-height, mSATA support) 1 1
Power Supply External 19V DC External 19V DC
Suggested Pricing $285 - $295 $363 - $373

The layout of the board is specified in the diagram below. The integration of the PCH into the processor is one of the advantages of the Haswell NUC compared to the Ivy Bridge NUCs (which used a QS77-Express chipset).

For such a small motherboard, the unit does pack quite a punch. The choice of the WLAN card as well as the mSATA disk is left to the system builder. This is in contrast to the Gigabyte BRIX, where consumers are advised not to remove the supplied WLAN card. The extra degree of freedom will definitely be appreciated in some circles. The default chassis provided by Intel employs active cooling and has a height of only 1.4 inches. This rules out the possibility of cramming in a 2.5" drive into the enclosure of the WYK, even though the motherboard provides SATA ports. The WYKH models alter the chassis dimensions to take advantage of the on-board port.

In the remainder of the review, we will look into our choice of components for completing the NUC build, some notes on the motherboard design, performance metrics / benchmarks, HTPC aspects and round up the review with some coverage of miscellaneous aspects such as power consumption and thermal performance.

Hardware and Setup Impressions
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  • CSMR - Saturday, January 04, 2014 - link

    Intel will release a bay trail NUC shortly. Should be powerful enough for HTPC tasks but 23.976Hz capability is unknown. Unfortunately it only supports one SATA, so HDD+mSATA is not possible as it is with these Haswell NUCs. Reply
  • Solandri - Saturday, January 04, 2014 - link

    The tiny size is really the only advantage this brings to a HTPC. For $680, you can buy a decent laptop with better specs and similar power profile, and use that as your HTPC. Reply
  • Lundmark - Saturday, January 04, 2014 - link

    Yeah, it's very tiny. Here's an image I made for comparisons (based on USB port size on Mac mini's backside).

    http://imgur.com/u2tRI85
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    Thanks for your kinds words.

    1. For HTPC reviews, we don't test audio quality because the traditional use case is to get digital audio out of the HDMI port and on to the AV receiver for further processing. The on-board DAC is not that important for the living room HTPC, though I can see it being an issue in other scenarios. But, again, I feel that in the other scenarios, ease of use / power etc. take more precedence over onboard DAC sound quality (as long as it is not absolutely horrible).

    2. I wouldn't suggest a box this small (and with this power envelop) for mid-level gaming. Light gaming might be OK. You could consider the BRIX Pro with Iris Pro, but the thermals on that m/c are yet to be evaluated.

    3. Will take that into consideration for future reviews.
    Reply
  • asliarun - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    Thanks for your reply, Ganesh!

    Even with a digital out, there seems to be a huge amount of variability in terms of jitter. Maybe this is overkill, but I love the fact that you guys do reviews so thoroughly, and would love it even more if you could review sound quality in more detail. IMHO, sound quality is often neglected and people tend to see this as the domain of "audiophiles". However, it is as important (if not more) as video quality on which several pages of a typical review are normally dedicated. All the more because DACs are getting hugely better and more affordable, and so are other components like headphones and amps. In a reasonably "revealing" system, audio quality starts making a big difference. Again, just my two cents.
    Reply
  • selimnairb - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    When I saw this review, I got excited that this could provide a high-quality Mac mini alternative. However, once you add the SATA, memory, and wireless card, and OS (if you want to run Windows) the Mac mini is a better value, plus you get OS X (if you want that). Even running Linux, this thing doesn't make much sense from a price point of view (unless you really value DIY). Reply
  • purerice - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    True it gets expensive, which is a bummer. A desktop i3 w/ 4400 or 4600 iGPU would be faster than the HD 5000 and cost less. A cheap 2.5" HD would also be about $130 less. Full-sized RAM can be had for cheaper as well.
    I get that NUC = low power, they could easily bring the cost of a complete system down to $500 by making a few small compromises in TDP. For $780 w/Windows you can get an equivalently powerful laptop/convertible that naturally has a screen and more connectivity.
    Reply
  • dstarr3 - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    The Mac Mini isn't necessarily any better value. Configuring one to the 8GB like this NUC and you're already at the same cost. You then have to upgrade to SSD in the Mini, and that puts you over $1k. The real problem is that these very small systems don't actually cost less than a full-size computer. They deliver less performance at the same cost in the name of form factor and efficiency. Which, y'know, if that's what you value, that's a perfectly reasonable way to spend the money. But, the idea that smaller equals cheaper is certainly an illusion. Reply
  • name99 - Friday, January 03, 2014 - link

    The interesting point is not that the mini is absolutely cheaper. It's that, even after years of it not being true, we still hear a constant whine about the "Apple Tax". There's value in simply pointing out, repeatedly, that Apple products, whether it's mac mini or mac pro, are comparably priced to the competition. You can find details that are different, but the point is "comparably" priced, not outrageously more expensive.
    What IS the case (which may or may not matter to a buyer) is that Apple doesn't sell low-end stuff --- if you want something comparable to that $350 laptop in Best Buy, well, Apple isn't going to sell you a laptop with those (low-end) specs at that (low-end) price.

    Of course you lose SOME flexibility if you go with a Mac Mini. But you also get some things in return, right now, most obviously, Fusion drive.

    On the third hand, it's kinda a moot point because, for reasons that are unclear, Apple STILL does not ship a Haswell mac mini, so if Haswell is important to you, it's NUC or nothing.
    (My hypothesis is that Apple is delaying the mini update to try as best they can to even out their revenue stream. Right now they have this crazy unbalanced system where they upgrade the laptops as soon as Intel has the CPU ready, so generally Q2, then Q3 they release the new iPhone, Q4 is the new iPad and iMac, plus Christmas and Chinese New Year plus the iPhone delayers who didn't upgrade the day of the release so a FLOOD of cash, then a lean Q1. Post Jan 1 purchases for Chinese New Year help a bit, but if you release a new mini in Q1 rather than Q2,3,4 you do make some small change at the margin to move revenue into Q1.

    We'll see if I'm right soon enough...

    The other thing they could do to even things out would be to establish a pattern of speed bumps for iOS devices in late Q1/early Q2. With their control over the CPU this should now be possible, and establishing a pattern of speed jumping by 10% or so, just a 100 or 150MHz bump, on the 6 month beats would again do something to start shifting revenue and demand across the year. It can't be optimal for productivity to have factories ramp up for such massive demand concentrated into three months, and more idle the rest of the year.)
    Reply
  • brucek2 - Saturday, January 04, 2014 - link

    In addition to the lack of low end offerings, Apple's value "tax" can also kick in as the months roll by in between their often lengthy refresh cycles. A model that had good components at a reasonable price on the day it was introduced, can sometimes start to look really non-competitive in its 11th month. Reply

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